Sticky buns and the remembrance of things past.

This week came the sad news that Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street was to close permanently with the loss of 110 jobs. It’s a desperately difficult time for the people who worked there, as well as being very sad for the people who passed time there over the years.

I was invited to write a short essay to mark the café’s closure for The Business, and appreciated the chance to pay my respects. When I thought about it, a few things occurred to me. For one thing, perhaps as a Northsider, my No. 1 Bewley’s was the Westmoreland Street one, followed by the café on Mary Street. The Grafton Street café was mostly a night time destination, either after I finished work in the Gaiety nearby or after clubs on South Anne Street. But even if that Bewley’s wasn’t my Bewley’s, it important that it was always there not least as a part of Grafton Street that couldn’t have been Chester or any regional town in England.

I have to admit that I hadn’t been there since it had reopened, although I had snuck sneaky peaks in the side door at Clarendon Street while the renovations were ongoing. The new Bewley’s wasn’t for me and I wasn’t inclined to brave the queues of tourists to get a coffee or expensive lunch there. For me, missing Bewley’s, it’s also about missing Grafton Street when it still had some of its old character, with teenage goths and punks, the Diceman and ageing members of the domestic rock fraternity promenading the recently pedestrianised streets.

Punks on Grafton Street, c.1991 from the wonderful Where Were You? Dublin Youth Culture and Street Style by Gary O'Neill
Punks on Grafton Street, c.1991 from the wonderful Where Were You? Dublin Youth Culture and Street Style by Gary O’Neill

Only a little while ago, there was outrage at the suggestion that the flower sellers be moved away from the side streets. They are – were – almost the only original features left with so much of the character of the street gone. Now the shops are international chains, and the pace is different. Grafton Street feels faster than before, apart from all the tourists who are slow. Maybe the class is different too, it’s not that there wasn’t money there back in the day, but the level of ostentatious consumption wasn’t the same as it is now or the same as it was a couple of months ago, anyway.

I miss it. I’m wallowing in nostalgia a little, but I’m allowed. Now parts of my life feature in history blogs and books and exhibitions (I had been looking forward to going to the Diceman exhibition in the Little Museum before everything shut down) but I suppose a lot of it is that I miss the time when Dublin felt more like it belonged to the people who lived here, wherever they were from, rather than a Potemkin version for tourists, and where 20 Carrolls was a packet of cigarettes, not a description of town.

Anyway, here I am on Bewley’s.


Smoked salmon socialists and three quid sandwiches

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I’m old enough to remember when smoked salmon had a touch more glamour than it might do now but chat around smoked salmon socialism made me wonder again where phrase had come from.

From using it in the company of English people I had become aware that smoked salmon socialism is a term unique to Ireland, although there are many variations of the insult. The English version is the ‘champagne socialist’ defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a person who espouses socialist ideals but enjoys a wealthy and luxurious lifestyle’, and then there is also the more extreme version of Bollinger Bolshevism. Since the late 1980s, ‘Chardonnay liberal’ has been used in Australia to describe ‘guilt-ridden rich an bleeding hearts’ according to S. Margot Finn, author of Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, who noted how ‘criticism of the liberal elite across the Anglophone world often explicitly invokes high-status foods.’  The phenomenon is also used outside the English-speaking world, however, with Michael Symons writing in Meals Matter: Radical Economics Through Gastronomy adding gauche caviar (France) and ‘Toaskana-Fraktion (Germany) to the list of gourmet-related phrases used by right-wing commentators as slights against the maturing, countercultural generation, perhaps somewhat similar to the type described in Tom Wolfe’s ‘Radical Chic’ essay. It is more an insult than an archetype such as the more recent breakfast roll man.

Champagne socialism seems to have been first coined by G.C. Eggleston in 1906 who used it to contrast with ‘beer socialism’, although I can’t speak to the beginnings of its use in Continental Europe. With the notable exception of rare individuals, most notably Countess Markievicz, there was no upper class, well-heeled left to be found in twentieth century Ireland. The left was predominantly the preserve of the working and lower-middle classes, and based on the trade union movement. Socialism of any variety was quite taboo in Ireland until the middle 1960s. Before then, the word ‘socialism’ was never used, with descriptions such as ‘progressive’ being preferred by those on the left. This was similar to the United States where socialism was tantamount to communism. However as socialism became fashionable among youngsters and a certain intellectual set, it went from something which was never used publicly to quite the buzzword.

Screenshot 2020-05-06 at 20.50.34Left wing middle class university lecturers, broadcasters such as Conor Cruise O’Brien, David Thornley and Justin Keating joined Labour  to the point where the leader of the Irish Labour Party could promise ‘the seventies will be socialist’, an optimistic assertion that was not borne out but provided much mirth to cynics in the decades after. This set were often objects of derision in Fianna Fáil, particularly during the 1969 general election when, under the guidance of its director of elections, the Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey, it ran a red-scare against Labour which, it warned planned to nationalise farms and industries including Guinness.

Labour fared badly in the 1969 election but in at the next general election in 1973, it joined with Fine Gael in a coalition government with Fine Gael, with prominent members of the intellectual set serving as ministers. One weekend in early October 1974, Charles Haughey gave a prepared speech to a Fianna Fail function in Dublin in which he accused the Government of having lost its grip on the financial crisis, claiming that the ‘smoked salmon socialists’ had no real understanding of the basic needs of the economy. With its alliterative sibilance, it was a catchy turn of phrase. Arguably Haughey’s use of the description ‘socialist’ implied an insult in itself. At the time Irish smoked salmon was regarded as some of the best in the world and it was a luxury food, beyond the general means of most. When Haughey used it, it was to mean that these men were pointy-headed, out of touch men, with a suggestion that they were more socialite than socialist. Perhaps there was something of a nod to Harold Wilson’s beer and sandwiches at No. 10.

Though a former Minister for Finance, by this point Haughey was a backbench member of the opposition, where he sat in some disgrace after the Arms trial four years earlier. His description  won attention for the speech that might not have been given to less florid, standard critique of macroeconomic policy. In the next day’s Irish Times, Donal Foley opened his Man Bites Dog column with a skit about ‘Mr. Charles J. Haughey, T.D. (‘Champagne Charlie’ to his friends)’ having ‘sent the names of a number of Smoked-Salmon Socialists to the Attorney General, Mr. Declan Costello, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, in conjunction with the Special Detective Unit.’

The phrase was sufficiently memorable that politicos assumed it was ghosted, although the following weekend, the Irish Times columnist John Healy, who was something of an associate (and sat beside Donal Foley in the newsroom), used his Backbencher column to admit “my friends accused me of giving [Haughey] the ‘smoked salmon socialists’ line. Not guilty, I fear.” Notwithstanding Healy’s denial, the phrase was sometimes credited to him including during a Dáil debate which featured an exchange over whether or not the salmon in question was smoked.

It was a description which stuck but while it evoked a particular milieux in 1974, it became distinctly anachronistic. Used against Labour members during a 2004 Seanad debate, Senator Brendan Ryan complained that smoked salmon was ‘a little dated.  If the men in this Chamber did their own shopping, they would know that smoked salmon is far from the most expensive commodity. The real problem is that most of the men on the other side of this Chamber would not recognise smoked salmon in a supermarket because they remain traditional men, who believe shopping is women’s work. They do not know what is going on in the world.’

Ryan’s call fell on deaf ears however, so that nearly fifty years after the phrase was first coined, new generations remain bewildered why a standard sandwich at the Ikea self-service canteen is a byword for notions and political cant.


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Smoked salmon sandwiches – possibly more fancy in Italian.

Margaret Skinnider

Margaret Skinnider & the INTO – Vere Foster Lecture, Belfast 2016

It’s great to see the publication of a new book on Margaret Skinnider by Mary McAuliffe. Best known for her participation in the 1916 Rising, Margaret Skinnider was, among other things, an active member of the INTO and it was a real pleasure to spend time with her, virtually, in the archives. Her contribution to the INTO was marked in 2016 when I gave an address to the Easter congress and I was invited to give a longer version at the annual Vere Foster lecture in Belfast.   

Maighréad Ní Scinneadóra 1892-1971

On 16 May 1916, the Times of London published a letter from the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, JP Mahaffy. After criticising John Dillon for a speech in the Commons on the rising he turned his sights on the Sinn Féiners themselves, before turning his attention to the people Mahaffy thought responsible for the rebellion in the first place.

‘There has been throughout the national schools a propaganda of hatred to England on the part of the schoolmasters living on the salary of the Imperial government,’ he asserted, ‘The rising generation have been so carefully soaked in disloyal sentiments that the large majority of the population is now against Imperial law and order.’

So began the notion of the Easter Rising as ‘the schoolmasters’ rebellion’, which is often misunderstood to refer to the participation of teachers in the planning and execution of the rising.

Superficially, it might seem as though teachers were especially active, with Pearse and MacDonagh – and though it is little known Tom Clarke taught briefly in a school in Dungannon – but there were actually very few national teachers out in Easter Week. Because of Mahaffy’s accusations, the Board of National Education, which oversaw Irish primary schools, investigated the extent of their involvement.

On 21 July 1916, the Board issued a statement to the press summing up the results of its inquiries, namely that

two or three instances of disloyal teaching [had] been brought under notice and these charges are being investigated, but no evidence has been adduced which would warrant the conclusion that seditious teaching in the national schools exists to any appreciable extent.

In a teaching body of 5,700 men, the Commissioners noted, only ten had been imprisoned, which hardly supported a charge of general disloyalty.

In a teaching body of 5,700 men.

Significantly, the Commissioners did not regard the women teachers as a possible source of sedition. This was quite mistaken.

Thomas Ashe, the principal from Corduff NS who died on hunger strike in 1917, is probably the best known INTO member from Easter Week, but lately his status is rivalled by that of Margaret Skinnider, who fought with the Citizen Army in the College of Surgeons during Easter Week.

Miss Skinnider is one of the women sometimes referred to mistakenly as the ‘forgotten women of 1916’.  If she, and others, were less well remembered than some of the leaders of the rising in more recent years, she was certainly not forgotten when she was alive.

Her participation in the Rising was well-known, she wrote a propaganda memoir in 1917 called Doing my bit for Ireland in which she very matter of factly describes the events of Easter week as she experienced them.

Margaret Skinnider has become better known once again in recent years, partly as a result of efforts to bring the participation of women to the fore, but this evening, as well as looking at her participation in the Easter Rising, I want to give an overview of her an important figure in Irish public life and especially as a teacher and trade union activist.

When Margaret Skinnider took part in the Easter Rising, she was working as a maths teacher in St Agnes School in Lambhill, Glasgow. She was born in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, Scotland in May 1892 to James Skinnider from County Monaghan and Jane Doud from Renfrewshire in Scotland. Raised in Maryhill Glasgow, she was the second youngest of six siblings, she spent summer holidays with her father’s family outside Monaghan when she was younger. She had developed an interest in Irish history at the age of 12 but was also acutely conscious of the sectarianism and anti-Irish feeling in Glasgow growing up.

Like many women of the time – and many women in the nationalist movement –  she became politically active through the women’s suffrage movement and was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She said she was known to the police locally as a militant suffragette, and she attended protests in support of suffragettes imprisoned in Perth Prison in 1914. It was around this time that she joined the Irish Volunteers and the Anne Devlin branch of Cumman na mBan when it was set up in Glasgow in mid-1915. She started attending a rifle club, set up to teach women to shoot in the event of a German invasion, and became a very good shot. She didn’t refer to it in her memoir, but it seems her first bit of active service took place in October 1915 in an unsuccessful effort to raid the Admiralty Yard in Glasgow for arms, where she was one of three Cumann na mBan posing as girl friends to three Volunteers so as not to arouse suspicion. Though the Volunteers successfully made it into the yard, all they managed to find was a fire extinguisher. If they were unsuccessful on that occasion, the Glasgow contingent did manage to procure some explosives all the same. A few months later, at Christmas 1915, Miss Skinnider travelled over on the boat to Dublin, wearing a three-cornered hat, with a detonator hidden in each corner and the wires curled around her under her coat. She spent much of the voyage sitting on the deck of the ship because she was afraid if she ran into a hot-water pipe or an electric wire, that might set them off. Instead she fell asleep on deck, using her hat as a pillow, only learning afterwards that this was even more dangerous.

She was travelling over to Dublin at the invitation of Madam Markievicz who had heard of this young lady in Glasgow and asked her over to stay in her house on Leinster Road for the Christmas holidays. After she arrived in Dublin, she and Madam went to the Dublin mountain to test the detonators.

Markievicz, who took this young woman, some thirty years her junior quite under her wing. You can imagine the impression that this aristocratic, bohemian woman thirty years her senior had on the 23 year old maths teacher from Glasgow. It was not that the fearless and serious Miss Skinnider was over-awed, but she was hugely impressed by Markievicz, who took this young woman, some thirty years her junior quite under her wing.

The two had much in common. Both were proud of being good shots and physically fearless; as well as being ardent nationalists they were both horrified by poverty and motivated by a desire to end it as well and they both really enjoyed dressing up, with the somewhat bird-like Margaret telling Madam that she could pass for a boy if ever needed, ‘even if it came to wrestling or whistling’ so Markievicz tried her out by putting her into a boy’s suit and Skinnider passed herself off as a member of the Glasgow Fianna to boys from the Fianna Éireann in Dublin when they went to a shooting gallery. On that occasion Skinnider hit the bulls-eye more often than most of her male comrades, as she recalled, much to the delight of the one boy among them who knew she was a girl, although, as she observed ‘he was not much surprised for by her own skill Madam had accustomed them to expect good marksmanship in a woman’. On this trip, Markievicz sked her to draw up plans of Beggar’s Bush barracks near the canal off Baggot Street in the south of the city, in case they wished to dynamite them if conscription was introduced, against promises to the contrary. Previous efforts by the Volunteers to draft them had failed but Skinnider had experience in gauging distances and drawing maps and had just completed a course in calculus. But, as Skinnider observed afterwards, it was not merely a test of her ability to draw maps and figure distances, and after that day she was taken into the confidence of the leaders of the movement, including James Connolly, who was a regular visitor to Markievicz’s house.

Margaret Skinnider returned to Glasgow at the end of the holidays, promising to come back when needed and so found herself in Dublin again before Easter. She arrived back on Holy Thursday and that evening, she was given a dispatch to bring up to Belfast to a man who was staying in the Connolly home there. She arrived up at 2 in the morning and returned to Dublin the next day with Mrs Connolly and her daughters, who, she recalled, were not sure if they would ever seen their home again. Connolly’s second daughter, Nora, was almost the same age as Margaret Skinnider and the two became good friends and remained very close over the years.

Otherwise, in the days before the rising she ran messages for the volunteers and moving dynamite around Dublin city and on Easter Monday, she took her bike into town and began her work. Her activities on Easter week have been well rehearsed recently, but I’ll let her speak for herself to give you an idea of how that day started out.

As well as scouting, Miss Skinnider carried  dispatches between the rebels in the Green and head quarters in the GPO. On the Tuesday morning, by which time the Stephens Green battalion was in the College of Surgeons, she had her first taste of the risks of street fighting when the soldiers on the top of the Shelbourne aimed their machine gun at her. She recalled her speed saved her life but that bullets had hit the wooden rim of the bicycle wheels, puncturing the tyres, as well as hitting the spokes of the wheels.

From Tuesday she was also actively involved in the fighting, one of the few women who were, as well as continuing the perilous work of a despatch rider. Dressed in a Citizen Army uniform which Markievicz had had made for her, she acted as a sniper from the roof of the College of Surgeons. As she recalled ‘more than once I saw the man I aimed at fall.’ She was still acting as a despatch rider as well though, and whenever she was required to deliver a despatch, she would change into her civvies before getting on her bike, and then change back into her uniform on her return to join the fire squad on the RCSI roof.

Her requests to Mallin that she be allowed take out the Shelbourne, to rid them from the menace of the machine gun, were originally rebuffed but on Wednesday, she was put in charge of four men and set out to fire a building on Harcourt St in an effort to take out the escape route of the British army snipers who were on the roof of the University Church on Stephens Green.

Just as they were about to enter the building, snipers on the roof of the Sinn Féin bank across the road on Harcourt Street opened fire, in the course of which she was shot three times. She had just turned to speak as she stood at the door a moment earlier, which meant that one of the bullets narrowly missing her spine, by a quarter of an inch. Had she not moved at that moment, she would almost certainly have been killed.  One of her comrades, the seventeen year old Fred Ryan was shot dead. Grievously injured, she was carried back to the College of Surgeons where she stayed until the surrender order was given by Pearse, after which she was brought across to St Vincent’s Hospital on the other side of the Green.

Grievously injured, she was carried back to the College of Surgeons where she stayed until the surrender order was given by Pearse, after which she was brought across to St Vincent’s Hospital on the other side of the Green, which is now home to Loretto on the Green girls’ school. She was very seriously ill, especially for her first two weeks in hospital which were quite hellish. She had contracted pneumonia and had a bad fever and as well as suffering from the internal effects of being shot by three dum-dum bullets, her wounds had been treated with too much corrosive sublimate which took all the skin off her side and back. Her first two weeks in hospital were hellish, as she fought a fever and was in great pain. Meanwhile, word had reached her mother that she had been killed, with later reports saying she had been paralysed and that she had been sentenced to fifteen years. William Partridge, who had actually saved her life, seems to have thought that she’d died and one of his fellow prisoners in Dartmoor later remembered how they included her in the prayers for their departed comrades every night. While in hospital she was visited regularly by Nora Connolly and her sister, Ina, with Nora telling Margaret of her father’s concern for her when she had last seen him. After five weeks, she was escorted to the Bridewell prison but she was followed down by Doctor Kennedy who had been taking care of her in Vincents, who apparently raised holy hell that his patient had been removed as a result of which she was returned to hospital where she stayed for a further fortnight, making seven weeks in Vincents in all.

Not long after she was discharged, Margaret Skinnider managed to secure a travel permit to return to Glasgow – a time when her accent and her looking more like a maths teacher than a rebel stood to her advantage – and she was able to travel to England to visit some of the prisoners in Reading Jail. She also visited Dublin twice where she noticed a change in the mood of the city, before travelling to America in December 1916 for a few months on a Cumman na mBan propaganda tour, during which time she wrote her book which was a personal account of Easter Week, written essentially for propaganda purposes.

She lived in Glasgow for a time, unable to secure a visa to return to Ireland but during the war of independence she was on the Executive of Cumann na mBan and was appointed Director of Training soon after. During this time, between 1919 and 1922 she worked for the Transport and General Workers Union.

Along with many of her closest comrades, she opposed the Treaty in 1922. During the attack on the Four Courts, she was in charge of Cumann na mBan operations in Dublin. She worked in charge of the Accounts Branch in the Quarter-Master General’s Office, at the Four Courts and following Liam Mellows’ arrest, she continued on as acting Quarter-Master General. Apparently she was the only woman ever to have been made a member of the General Headquarters staff of the IRA. Arrested in possession of a revolver and ammunition on St Stephens Day, 1922, she spent eleven months in prison. She was in Mountjoy for a time before being moved to the North Dublin Union where she and others spent time on hunger strike. Ever the teacher, while she was in the North Dublin Union she conducted a choir of Cumann na mBan prisoners, which was at its best at Mass on Sunday. Mairead and Siobhan De Paor who were in with her described her as being the O/C of various activities including knitting and drilling and her advice was often sought on many subjects. She was a great knitter and was able to knit and read at the same time, which kept her busy particularly in later years.

Miss Skinnider was released from prison in November 1923, six months after the dump arms order. She went to work as a clerk for the Larkinite Workers’ Union of Ireland, which had split from the ITGWU, and whose office at 31 Marlborough Street was almost beside the Department of Education.

Last year, the files of the Military Pensions were released online and there was a lot of attention given to Margaret Skinnider’s application for a 1916 pension which had been turned down in 1925 because according to the Minister for Defence the Army Pensions act of 1923, was ‘only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.

This was merely an added reason for her claim being rejected, however, because it was not merely her gender more her politics that stood against her since, as the intelligence report put it ‘this lady has been a very prominent Irregular since 1922’.

It was after Fianna Fáil were in government from 1932 that the rules of the pensions were changed so that those who had subsequently been on the anti-Treaty side were also eligible and she was eventually declared eligible for a pension in 1938, assessed at 20 per cent disablement for two years.

A dedicated teacher, for whom it was a vocation, she wished to return to the classroom, but it was not easy for a woman with her record to secure a position. Eventually, in 1927 she secured a post in the Sisters’ of Charity school in King’s Inn Street. It was a large school, with some 1,200 pupils, in an economically disadvantaged part of Dublin’s north inner city. It’s near Henrietta Street, where the Tenement museum is now based. She was strict with great control over her girls but with a great sense of loving kindness, and she developed their love for Irish history and the Irish language especially. She organised camogie for the school and they played in the Phoenix Park.

Miss Skinnider had made a reasonable recovery from her injuries considering their seriousness, but the extensive scars from her wound remained all her life, and, more importantly she had sustained serious damage to the nerves of her upper arm which meant that she was unable to write on the blackboard for any length of time or do any work involving use of the right arm for any length of time.

Of course, as soon as she resumed teaching she joined the INTO and Nora Connolly O’Brien recalled that she ‘would not tolerate’ any teacher in the school not being a member of the organisation.

The INTO Strike Working Committee 1946

 It was during the great Teachers’ Strike of 1946 that she became particularly active. She served on the strike committee and afterwards she was elected to the CEC at the 1949 congress along with Miss Breedge Bergin, who had been elected vice president. The two were the only women on the executive, and this lack of representation was reflected in the treatment of women generally, even though women made up sixty-four per cent of the membership. When Miss Bergin was elected president in 1950, she became only the third woman president in the Organisation’s eighty-two year history at that point, after Catherine Mahon and Kathleen Clarke, the namesake of Tom Clarke’s widow. Not long after, Margaret Skinnider would become the fourth.

Miss Skinnider was also politically active around this time. Many national school teachers were deeply angry at Fianna Fáil’s behaviour over the ’46 strike and a few of them were active in establishing the new progressive republican party, Clann na Poblachta, of which she was a founding member in 1946. She served on its ard comhairle and ran unsuccessfully for the Clann in the local elections in 1950. Clann na Poblachta was in the inter-party government of 1948-51 during which time, Margaret Skinnider was asked to approach party leader Seán MacBride to lobby on education and to seek Clann support on moving a motion on teachers’ salaries but to no avail.

With senior members of Clan na Poblachta

 Skinnider was nominated to stand for the seanad on two occasions. The first time was in 1954, when she was nominated to stand for the Labour panel by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations but the INTO’s treasurer, MP Linehan, was standing for the same panel, leading the general secretary to impress upon her that her candidature would interfere with Linehan’s and there was a grave danger that neither would get in. He suggested she consider withdrawing and later she did so. At the following seanad election in 1957, when she was INTO president, the ICPSA nominated her for the Labour Panel once again, this time before the INTO had already done so. The INTO did not put up another candidate on the panel and supported Skinnider asking that the TUC give her all possible support but she failed to be elected.

As an INTO activist, she fought for better pay and conditions for all teachers but at a time when women teachers were discriminated against through the marriage ban, and there was great resistance among male teachers to the idea of women receiving the same pay as them, Margaret Skinnider was one of few women activists in the organisation. The issue was a particularly divisive one in the years immediately after 1947, when the pay scale which followed the teachers’ strike had seen single men and women teachers put at the same rate. The male teachers were vehemently opposed to this and succeeded by way of their massive majority in congress and on the executive, in securing the INTO’s support for their cause. At congress and on the CEC, Margaret Skinnider opposed any move to revert to have male teachers restore a disparity and protested strongly at what she felt was a betrayal of the women teachers and the organisation’s values.

She was nominated to represent the INTO on the Roe Commission on teachers’ salaries in 1948, in order to ensure there was a woman representative, but in no way was she mere window-dressing or tokenism. The extent to which the INTO was male-dominated at the time is difficult to exaggerate, but as ever, she was fearless. Even in a room full of men, many, if not most, of whom disagreed with her, she would clearly argue her point and stand her ground, even if it meant speaking to her colleagues as though they were a class of infants. Admonishing congress one year, she told delegates severely ‘I never speak to a class when there is talking and I am sorry I cannot speak to you’ which brought about a sheepish silence, before she continued to make her point about pensions. Neither was she selfish in this and made sure others – particularly young women teachers – would have the freedom to speak. At the same congress, she had taken to the platform during a debate to complain that ‘proper facilities were not being given to the younger members to speak and that delegates were embarrassing young girls coming up, with the first girl trying to speak to a motion having calls for her telephone number from the floor. ‘Is it any wonder the younger people do not come up?’ she asked. On the executive and at congress, year after year, she fought for the rights of women teachers. In 1956 she was elected vice president of the organisation and became president the following year. When the Irish Congress of Trade Unions set up a Women’s Advisory Committee to advise it on problems faced by women in the trade union movement, she was appointed its chair, stepping down on her retirement in 1964. Speaking at the 1963 congress, she pointed out to delegates that ICTU research on the possible impact of Ireland joining the EEC on things like salaries, they had found that the difference in wage rates between men and women was much greater than that of OEEC countries, which were Christian and mostly Catholic. A delegate named Morgan from Drogheda responded by telling her that she should not  forget the women at home. ‘As an organisation they praised themselves that they always had the welfare of the children at heart but what about the mothers at home.’ At her last congress as a delegate the next year, in 1964, she was still at the fore in speaking for equal pay, citing the UNO, the Treaty of Rome, the ILO and the ITUC but to no end. Her motion was defeated by an amendment tabled by a Tipperary delegate named Ryan who complained that he ‘could not understand this business of equal pay for equal work’ and wanted to know ‘if someone had a grudge against the married teacher.’

That Margaret Skinnider’s sense of nationalism remained undimmed throughout this time was clear from her president’s speech at the Killarney congress in 1957 which dealt with education in Ireland since before the time of St Patrick. In it, she discussed the role played by teachers in various national movements; looking at the minutes of the National Board from 1831 to 1870, she proudly noted that there was a record for sixty-five teachers, men and women, who were in trouble with the Board for alleged disloyalty during these years, many of whom had been connected with the Young Irelanders and the Fenians. This record only covers those who were ‘found out’ by the board and can only be a small percentage of those actually connected with those movements. At the same time, while she was a great believer in social justice and was an active member of Clann na Poblachta, whose policies were broadly social democratic, she took time in her speech to condemn one of de Valera’s favourite political philosophers, Nicolo Machiavelli, and what she called his ‘evil statist doctrine’

Her fighting spirit was often evident in her speeches. Speaking in the 1960s on the matter of dilapidated school buildings and huge class sizes, she called on teachers to examine their own consciences, asking would anyone accorded professional status work in the conditions that teachers did. ‘Sometime ago the CEC sent a questionnaire around to teachers asking them when their schools were clearned and painted etc. and one question was ‘is your school rat-infested?’ One teacher replied ‘no self-respecting rat would be found dead in this place.’ She urged the teachers ‘get up off your knees and stand up like men and women’…The rat had one quality which she much admired and that was he fought when he had to.’

She retired in 1964, and her voice was missed at congress. She had been a hugely important voice for women teachers and there was still a great deal of sexism and resistance to open up the old boys club and for many years after she retired there was not a single woman on the INTO’s CEC, and if anything the sexism became worse during the 1970s in her absence.

Commemorating 1916 in 1966

Again and again, we have been told lately about the ‘forgotten women’ of 1916, but if current generations have failed to remember, they were not forgotten by their peers at the time. Over the years, Margaret Skinnider was a regular attendee at events to commemorate and celebrate the men and women of the revolutionary period and when Seán Lemass’s government was nominating a committee to over-see the state Commemorations for the fiftieth anniversary of the rising in 1966, Margaret Skinnider was one of those appointed. She was interviewed for Radio Éireann about events on Easter Week and appeared in various accounts of the rising.

In 1966, her old principal, Sister de Lellis, invited her back to King’s Inn Street to tell the girls all about 1916. After addressing the assembly, she made sure to stop and speak to the girls on her way down from the stage.

She was also invited to address the INTO Congress that Easter. She was still a revolutionary woman, but she was proud of what Ireland had achieved during independence, telling the delegates in 1966, she was unhappy there were people who ‘belittle what has been done’ since 1916. ‘‘They don’t appreciate what has been done; the hospitals which have been built; the schools erected; the industries which have been started and flourish and all the other things.’

Thanking her after Miss Skinnider had ended her speech to congress in 1966 the president, Mrs Liston, observed she had turned down many other invitations to be with them at Congress. Margaret Skinnider responded, though, that there was no other place she would be. ‘Even my allegiance to those sacred things in Dublin [1916 ] could not get inside my allegiance to the INTO.’

 Margaret Skinnider remained in her home in Fairview on Dublin’s north side in her retirement where she spent much of her time reading and knitting, and would spend most weekends staying with her great friend Nora Connolly O’Brien. She died on 11 November 1971 and was buried beside Countess Markievicz, only the third woman to be buried in the Republican Plot after Markievicz and James Connolly’s widow Lillie. The day after her death, Radio Éireann broadcast a half hour radio programme including her friends.

Margaret Skinnider was well-known to her generation and her name would have been known to many of those who studied the revolutionary period but among the general public in recent years, like many of the rank and file of Easter Week, male and female. Recently, her name has become better known as part of the attempt to highlight the role played by women in the Rising, especially as she was one of the only female combatants, and the only female combatant to be injured. The release of her pension records, and the refusal of the state to countenance paying her a pension on the grounds of her sex has also brought her significant attention, and she has been the subject of an RTÉ broadcast documentary and newspaper articles, and talks and has become the first INTO president to have a roundabout named after them. It is natural in the year that’s in it that her role in 1916 would be emphasised, but there is so much more to Margaret Skinnider than that.

After she had spoken to the INTO congress in 1966, the general secretary Dave Kelleher observed that in all the time they had spent together over the years, he had never once heard her mention the party she’d played in the rising. ‘She was that modest’. While it is true that she was a modest person, it might be more accurate to say that she was not someone who lived in, or dwelt on the past. She may have done her bit for Ireland in 1916, but she didn’t stop there and her devotion to education and the children of Ireland was really her life’s work.


The Democratic Programme and the roots of the Republic

I was invited to speak at a conference on Law, Revolution and Sovereignty: Reflections on the Legal Legacy of the 1916 Rising & Declaration of Independence held by the School of Law in NUI Galway in 2016. I was a political historian among legal scholars so the paper had a legal scholarly name but the paper focused on the area of the values set out in the proclamation and their politics. In other words, the as the title on the programme puts it 1919 as root of title, a somewhat legal title for a paper with no law. It is based on a chapter in Foundation Stone: Notes Towards a Constitution for a 21st-Century Republic edited by Theo Dorgan.

The year 1919 is a pivotal date in Irish history and is effectively the constitutional foundation stone of the modern Irish state. Strictly speaking, the state dates itself from 1922 with the foundation of the Irish Free State under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty but, I would suggest, outside of particular partisan circles, there is not really a great deal of affection for that particular date, which represents a bitterly contested compromise wrested from Britain.

1919 is not officially a part of the history of the actual state, then, but it has a semi-official status, in the sense that we still count our parliaments from the one elected at the 1918 general election, and the record of our Houses of the Oireachtas begins with the first public meeting of the First Dáil in the Mansion House on 21 January 1919. It’s not something we do with our governments but it is, I think, the only aspect of the pre-1922 independence movement that remains a part of the architecture of the modern state.

The First Dáil was a non-violent revolutionary act, which had its basis in a mandate from the Irish people. As Michael Laffan pointed out ‘in two quite different respects the meeting of the First Dáil was an act of great symbolic importance. Not only did it inaugurate the democratic and constitutional history of independent Ireland, but it also represented a synthesis of two different traditions within Irish nationalism’, by combining the military and political traditions within Irish nationalism and was ‘the product of co-operation between soldiers and politicians’ which had begun in the period following the 1916 Rising.[1] It also dramatically marked the end of a different political tradition in Ireland, with the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) having been effectively wiped out in the election which preceded it. In a sense then, it marks the continuity of the Irish parliamentary tradition, but with an entirely new cast of actors.

It’s not necessary to rehearse the origins of the First Dáil except to note a couple of things. For one thing, it is a direct consequence of the events of Easter Week and the re-organisation of the iteration of Sinn Féin that grew out of it and which was, at that point, more of a rallying cry than a political party in any conventional sense. Labour, which had been founded only a few years earlier, famously did not contest the election, so that the contest was a straight fight between Sinn Féin and the IPP, making it, in effect a referendum on separatism.

As Frank Gallagher put it, there had been no concealment of what Sinn Féin stood for.

  1. That it was for Ireland a Republic the people were being asked to vote
  2. that those elected would not attend the British Commons but would remain in Ireland to set up a National Assembly, and
  3. That the assembly would assert full sovereign independence.[2]

The Sinn Féin landslide which followed saw the party take 73 of 105 seats. That they would not take their seats in Westminster was a given, despite some cynical speculation to the contrary,[3] but there was a question mark over what Sinn Féin might do next. A parliament with Sinn Féin deputies only would be problematic with so many of them in prison, but the suggestion that they convene a National Assembly, including representatives of the Labour movement and other national organisations was also difficult because this would dilute the legitimacy conferred on any parliament by co-opting unelected members. If they were going to establish a representative government, they believed that their mandate was crucial.

Tom Johnson had told a newspaper that the party was ‘willing to act as a Left-wing within the National Assembly’ and the Labour leaders were reported to have been distinctly put out at not having been invited to take part in a broader assembly, but they said nothing in public and would be placated soon enough.[4]

On 7 January, some twenty nine of the Sinn Féin MPs attended a preliminary private meeting in the Oak Room of the Mansion House of the ‘Dáil Éireann’ as the new assembly had been called. They resolved ‘that we, the republican members of the Irish constituencies, in accordance with the National Will, are empowered to call together the Dáil Éireann and proceed accordingly.’ Which they duly did, assembling at the Round Room of the Mansion House at 3.30 pm on 21 January 1919, in a room packed with ticket holders and the international press.

After a prayer read in Irish by Fr Flanagan there was a roll call of all those elected in 1918, with the refrain fé ghlas ag Gallaibh for each Sinn Féin member in prison on the day, while the Unionist and Home Rule MPs were ‘as láthair’, the Bunreacht Dala Éireann was read, in Irish only, and adopted. The Constitution of Dáil Éireann consisted of five articles and was a straightforward framework for organising the work of parliament and its ministers. Article 1 stated that ‘all legislative powers shall be vested in Dáil Éireann, composed of Deputies, elected by the Irish people form the existing Irish parliamentary constituencies’; article 2 outlined the composition of the ministry of the Dáil and the election of the president, article 3 referred to the chairman of the Dáil, Article 4 related to money and article 5 stated that the constitution was provisions and liable to alteration upon seven days’ written notice. An English language version was provided to the press on the day,[5] and later adopted when the Dáil met again on 1 April when much of the business of the day was amendments to the standing orders and to the constitution of Dáil Éireann, including a motion moved by Eamonn de Valera and seconded by Countess Markievicz that ‘Deputies shall be referred to by the names of their constituencies and that (g) No Deputy shall make a personal charge against another nor use offensive remarks about another,’[6] thus adding guidelines for civility to proceedings which had been remarkably civil up to this point and, more curiously, adopting the Westminster custom regarding names.

Brian Farrell has observed that the presentation of the constitution was ‘almost dismissive’ and did it less than justice, considering it was the ‘first fundamental law of modern Ireland [and] was to remain the basis of the Irish state until the adoption of the Irish Free State constitution in 1922.’[7] Certainly, the emphasis in the rhetoric of the proceedings of the opening session of the First Dáil is on the parliament, and the people who elected it, rather than on any government arising out of it and any structures it might have. It is interesting though, that when the Dáil met for the third time, this time with de Valera present for the first time, that the focus shifted to the structures of government and rules of the house.

But after the roll and the rules, the meeting it had before it three items of business: a declaration of independence, a message to the free nations of the world calling for recognition of Ireland’s independence and, finally, the adoption of the Democratic Programme.

The message to the free nations of the world, which was read in Irish, English and French, was an appeal for recognition of Ireland’s national status and her right to its vindication at the Paris Peace Congress but the other two documents are of more lasting relevance and are what I’m going to focus on here.

Recalling the meeting of the First Dáil some decades later in his book The Four Glorious Years, Frank Gallagher noted that ‘the Declaration of Independence, made by Dáil Éireann’ that day ‘is historically the most important document in the archives of modern Ireland.’[8]

The Declaration of Independence is just 400 words long and effectively updates the Proclamation in the context of the new national parliament.

The Declaration of Independence can be boiled down to the idea that where the ‘Irish republic was proclaimed on Easter Monday by the Irish Republican Army acting on behalf of the people,’ now the people had declared its allegiance to the Republic through a democratic vote. It roots the Republic in centuries of physical force, right up to 1916, but confirms its legitimacy with its mandate.

Frank Gallagher may have a case in saying that this Declaration of Independence is historically the most important document of modern Ireland but it has never had that status. It is largely unremarked on by scholars and, I think, almost entirely absent from the public consciousness. I doubt many people could quote a single sentence and a very quick Google search mostly brought up pages relating to the 1916 Proclamation. Perhaps it is partly a consequence of a the more formal, legalistic language of the Declaration – ‘and whereas, and whereas’ – in comparison with the more elegant or memorable Proclamation. It might be facile to suggest that the visionaries of the revolution had been executed after the Rising but nevertheless, the 1919 document lacks something of its predecessor. Looking at Declarations of Independence more broadly, we can see that it lacks the philosophical qualities that have made the American declaration stand the test of time in its public consciousness. There are no self-evident truths or rights, just an national polity albeit one ‘based upon the people’s will with equal right and equal opportunity for every citizen.’

But if the vision of the Republic is lacking from the Declaration of Independence, it can be found in the third document adopted by the Dáil on that first day, the Democratic Programme. In fewer than 600 words in the English language version, the programme laid out the principles on which the Irish Republic was to be built – those of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all – where every man and woman would give their allegiance to ‘the commonwealth’ and, in return, each citizen would receive an adequate share of the produce of the nation’s labour and where the government’s first duty would be to ensure the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of every child. The programme was not framed as a constitution, as such, but it did outline the basic ethos and civic framework on which the new state would be built. Significantly, however, the word ‘state’ is entirely absent from the text. In contrast, the 1922 Free State constitution and its 1937 successor, Bunreacht na hÉireann, both focused on drawing up the state’s legal and political infrastructure, but the notion of citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities it conferred, was wholly absent, an absence which has been reflected in the political culture of the state.

In recent years, particularly in the context of the post-2008 economic crisis and the political re-evaluation which followed (such as it was), this absence of a popular civic republicanism has been highlighted as a factor contributing to Ireland’s national malaise by various commentators. This view has much to recommend it although there is rarely (if ever) any acknowledgement of the voices which had previously called for the state to promote an active citizenship in the past but who were readily ignored by those who held political power almost from the outset. The Democratic Programme adopted by Dáil Éireann in January 1919 is probably the most pertinent example, a document which not only remains relevant today but which is significantly more progressive than anything which followed in the century since it was put before Ireland’s first independent parliament.

Before looking at the document itself though, it’s worth looking at the context in which it was written.

The genesis behind the programme was largely political and done with an eye on an international audience. The Socialist International was meeting in Berne on 3 February and two Labour men, Tom Johnson, treasurer of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress and Cathal O’Shannon, an official in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, were planning to attend to lobby for support for Irish self-determination. Anything that which might lend the progressive or radical credentials to the new government would surely ‘strengthen the delegation’s hand in Switzerland’[9] would be advantageous. Johnson was approached to write the Dáil’s social programme, something which might serve as a consolation to Labour which had stood aside in the 1918 election and again when the membership of the assembly was not widened. There was also another consideration, though, since there were few others capable of doing the job.

Part of the problem was that ‘Sinn Féin’, that broad alliance of disparate political beliefs, had not given the issue a great deal of thought. Many of those who had been inclined towards political thinking had died in 1916 and their successors seemed, for the most part, of a less philosophical bent. Theirs was an attitude summed up in a story retold by Seán O’Faolain, about the English journalist who

Soon after 1916, plied the general secretary of Sinn Féin, Paudeen O’Keeffe, with so many insistent questions on the lines of ‘What are the practical aims of this movement?’ and got so many unsatisfactory answers that, in the end, he said in some slight exasperation: ‘Mr O’Keeffe, would you at least say what exactly you yourself want?’

At this O’Keeffe, a small, dark fiercely moustached Celt, banged his desk and roared: ‘Vingeance, bejasus!’[10]

Similarly, in his history of Sinn Féin between 1916 and 1923, Michael Laffan has observed that Sinn Féin ‘did not engage in the sort of intellectual debates which preoccupied many of their counterparts in other countries.’[11] It would be wrong to suggest that these debates did not take place at all, but within Sinn Féin people who thought in a practical way about the nature of Irish society after the revolution, people such as Liam Mellows, were in the minority and tended to be on the left. For the rest, Connolly’s idea of ‘painting the post boxes green’ did not seem too objectionable. As such another factor in Johnson being asked to write the programme was because he could and there was no one in Sinn Féin who would be equal to the job.

In early January, Johnson was approached to write the Dáil social and economic document. Johnson began his draft by quoting form the 1916 Proclamation and then from Pearse’s last major pamphlet, the Sovereign People (published 31 March 1916), in a deliberate attempt ‘to link Easter Week with the Dáil’s need for a social policy’ as well as to illustrate the influence which James Connolly had had on Pearse’s thought in later years.[12]

In Pearse’s words, the passage asserted that ‘no private right to property is good against the public right of the nation…whenever forms of productive wealth are wrongfully used…the Nation shall resume possession without compensation.’ The draft continued in a similar vein, asserting that ‘the Irish Republic shall always count wealth and prosperity by the measure of health and happiness of its citizens’ and as such, the first duty of the government of the republic would be to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children. It set out how natural resources would be exploited for the good of the people and how where ‘productive wealth’ was ‘wrongfully used or withheld from use to the detriment of the Republic, there the nation shall resume possession without compensation.’ Having dealt with trade and the noting that ‘it shall be the purpose of the government to encourage the organisation of the people into trade unions and co-operative societies with a view to the control and administration of the industries by the workers engaged in the industries. Finally, it concluded that ‘the Republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful service in return, and in the process of accomplishment will bring freedom to all who have hitherto been caught in the toils of economic servitude.’[13]

Johnson’s document, however, was far from the last word since, as Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh has noted, ‘the republicans were not minded to let the programme through on the nod.’[14] Michael Collins called a meeting of leading members of the IRB for the eve of the inaugural session of the first Dáil to consider the Democratic Programme. According to P.S. O’Hegarty, one of those present:

The ‘Democratic Programme’ gave rise to a lively debate, the preponderance of opinion being against it. It was urged that this declaration was in fact ultra vires for the Dáil, whose one and only business was to get the English out of Ireland, and that all internal and arguable questions like this should be left over until the English had actually been got out, and, on a vote, that view was upheld. Collins then said that he would suppress the ‘democratic programme’, and he did so; but, next morning, the others refused to go one without a democratic programme and the draft was handed to Seán T. O’Kelly, who finally produced what was put before the Dáil.[15]

O’Kelly’s recollection differed somewhat but as Ó Cathasaigh observes, ‘his description of how the draft was received rings true’:

a long and sometimes heated discussion. There were ideas and statements which some of the committee would not accept. The discussion lasted until well after eleven o’clock… Eventually the meeting broke up without any agreement. All notes and suggestions were thrown at me because I was chairman. I was told to draft the document myself.[16]

As Ó Cathasaigh observes, ‘O’Shannon thought that the Sinn Féin executive, with O’Kelly’s own support, overruled the IRB objections,’[17] and O’Kelly was given the task of rendering Johnson’s original document into something which the IRB would find less objectionable. O’Kelly worked through the night, cutting extensively, editing other sections but adding little of his own. He removed some of the more radical elements in the text including the elimination of the capitalist class and the confiscation of misused property and rephrasing other sections. Years later, O’Shannon went compared original draft and the final version and found that around half of the half of the Johnson draft was omitted.[18] Once O’Kelly had finished his revisions, there was a rush to have the final version typed up for the opening of the Dáil. With no time left to write an Irish translation, Piaras Béaslaí was left to do an impromptu translation, pretending to read from the English text.[19] As O’Kelly later recalled, ‘the draft of the Democratic Programme was not submitted to any committee or indeed to any individual except my wife,’[20] and Cathal O’Shannon noted that it was not until he and Johnson listened to the programme being read to the Dáil that they realised that it had been amended. But if a deal of the explicit socialism of the first draft was excised, it was not wholly eliminated and the end result did not trouble Johnson who wept with emotion as it was read out.[21]

I will just quote a couple of excerpts here:

we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.

We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.

We affirm the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service to the Commonwealth, and declare it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

Even watered down, the Democratic Programme is a powerful declaration of the rights and duties of citizens and what was meant by a Republic, outside the instruments of statehood or government. The problem, however, at the time and since, however, lies in the mens rea. [joke] The Democratic Programme was adopted by the First Dáil, few members of that Dáil, if any, seem to have taken it particularly seriously and the debate has raged for decades over whether the Programme was genuine or merely opportunism.

Apart from the IRB’s opposition not merely to its content but to its being read at all. In later years, there were others on the Cumann na nGaedhael/Fine Gael side who were openly contemptuous of it. Asked about the programme fifty years later, in 1969, Ernest Blythe recalled ‘no, I never found anybody who took the slightest interest in it. The Labour Party secured the adoption of it. I don’t think anybody, practically speaking, bothered with it afterwards. It was regarded as some sort of hoisting of a flag. It wasn’t regarded as significant.’[22] Similarly, Piaras Beaslaí, who was on the Dáil preparatory committee (and who ‘read’ the Irish version to the assembly) later wrote that it was doubtful whether a majority of the members would have voted for it, without amendment, had there been any immediate prospect of putting it into force.’[23] Indeed, the first suggestions that this case the case was as early as April 1919.

On 4 April a motion pledging the assembly to ‘fair and full redistribution of vacant lands and ranches … among the uneconomic holders and landless men’ was withdrawn with the land question being given over to consideration by a committee, suggesting that any practical efforts to put the programme into practice might be unwanted.[24] The following week, when answering a question about the social policy of the government, de Valera, the president of the republic who had been in Jail when the Programme had been adopted, explained that ‘it was quite clear that the democratic programme…contemplated a situation somewhat different from that in which they actually found themselves. They had the occupation of the foreigner in their country, and while that state of affairs existed, they could not put fully into force their desires and their wishes as far as their social programme was concerned.’ Furthermore, adverting to his lack of involvement in the process ‘He had never made any promise to Labour, because, while the enemy was within their gates, the immediate question was to get possession of their country.’[25]

After 1922, when the British enemy had moved beyond the gates, the division on the Democratic Programme became more apparent. Cumman na nGaedhael’s hostility towards it was clearly evident during the debates on the 1922 constitution. Drawing on the democratic programme, Labour deputies endeavoured to have economic rights to things such as food, shelter and education in the constitution, but Kevin O’Higgins was adamant that constitutions should include only ‘fundamental rights.’ There would be no references to citizens or their rights or duties and when the debate moved to natural resources, O’Higgins accused Labour of trying to put communist doctrine into the Free State Constitution. When Tom Johnson countered that what he was suggesting was in the democratic programme, O’Higgins merely replied ‘that’s not a constitution.’

In effect, Cumman na nGaedheal, and later Fine Gael, opposed the Democratic Programme, Labour and some left republicans supported it and then there were other republicans such as Liam Lynch or de Valera, who paid it lip service, expressing the view that the democratic programme was fine, but not yet. When Fianna Fáil was founded in 1926, it listed among its seven objectives ‘to carry out the democratic programme of the First Dáil’ an aim only removed from its corú very recently.

The programme was never entirely forgotten but it enjoyed something of a revival in the mid-late 1960s when its radicalism chimed with the spirit of social and political rebellion and the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising encouraged a return to the foundations of the modern state. Writing in 1969, the economist Patrick Lynch, then lecturing in UCD, noted the changes in attitude which had begun in recent years ‘when young people saw that there are individuals in all three political parties who appear to have more in common with themselves and with the Democratic Programme… than with the policies of our political parties at the last general election.’[26] Not that its appeal was limited to the new generation. Seán Lemass referred to it in several speeches during his time as Taoiseach and privately, at least, he had expressed a desire to restate its social objectives. In 1964, Michael McInerney, the Irish Times political correspondent suggested that Lemass planned to use the commemorations of the 1916 rising to ‘declare in 1966 terms the national aims as defined in the 1919 programme’ and when the Taoiseach established an All Party Committee on the Constitution that year it looked as though that might happen but ultimately, it was not to be.

The celebrations surrounding 1966 emphasised the Proclamation of the Republic not its successor from the First Dáil and by its anniversary in 1969 it merely highlighted the state’s sins of omission. When members of the Oireachtas and distinguished guests met to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the First Dáil’s inaugural meeting, President de Valera’s address had been interrupted with a shout. ‘The programme of the old Dáil has never been implemented. This is a mockery.’ Continuing by noting a hunger-strike in Mountjoy by a housing activist who had been imprisoned after he refused to vacate the house in Mountjoy Square where he had been squatting in with his wife and children. The interruption came not from some young hot-head but an older man in the distinguished visitors section, Joseph Clarke, a veteran of 1916, who’d fought on Mount Street bridge under de Valera’s command and the usher-in-charge of the first Dáil.

Once Lemass had retired from politics, the document’s status diminished within Fianna Fáil and became almost exclusively identified with the left where it continued to be seen as founding document of a republic that had failed to be. Beyond the republican movement (where it was regarded highly in the official and provisional wings), the left and the Labour Party especially, it fell out favour. It was generally ignored, and when it was not ignored it was derided. Writing in January 1989, Mary Holland noted how ‘the political parties achieved a new and rather depressing consensus…when they agreed, unanimously, not to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first Dáil’ and a suggestion by a Labour senator that the upper house mark the event – highlighting the importance of the democratic programme – prompted the NUI senator, Professor John A. Murphy to declare it ‘pious codswallop’, ‘a piece of eyewash. It was mere window dressing.’ Five years later, however, the occasion was, at least marked by RTÉ in a series of Thomas Davis lectures, published as an collection edited by Brian Farrell, which emphasised the importance of 1919 as the bedrock of the modern Irish state.

Politically, no one in recent times has identified so strongly with it as President Michael D. Higgins who probably articulated his point best in his valedictory speech to Dáil Éireann in January 2011. On that occasion he spoke of his belief that ‘no real republic had been created in Ireland’ and pointed to the lack of citizenship, not only in Ireland but in the European Union as a whole, and emphasised the need to rebuild an entirely different society one based on ‘political participation, administrative fairness and the equality of the right to community’ and which included ‘a floor of citizenship below which people would not be allowed to fall.’ The picture he painted of a ‘radical inclusive republic’ was compelling, but, as Deputy Higgins might lament, it was not new. The themes he set out in this speech, in effect a reiteration of the Democratic Programme, would be at the heart of his presidential campaign. He returned to them in his address following his inauguration as President of Ireland. President Higgins quoted the sean focal ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ translating it in terms Tom Johnson would have understood: ‘our strength lies in our common weal, our social solidarity.’

At a recent series of history lectures on independent Ireland, I was intrigued to see historian after historian begin their talks with reference to the Democratic Programme, although I think, perhaps this is largely because it is so useful as a benchmark for what was left undone, and serves largely as reminder of the new state’s sins of omission. It has no standing in Irish law beyond a moral one and so much of the debate around its status is based not only on what was meant by its authors but also by those who adopted it.

The Democratic Programme as adopted by the First Dáil represents the high point of the Republic, in a sense, as it was the last time that the citizens of the Republic had precedence as from 1922, the State takes precedence.


[1] Laffan, ‘Sinn Féin from Dual Monarchy’ in Farrell ed p.15

[2] David Hogan, The Four Glorious Years p.51

[3] Mitchell, p.5

[4] Mitchell pp.9-10

[5] Farrell, ‘The First Dáil and its Constitutional Documents’ in Farrell ed p.

[6] DED 1 April 1919

[7] Farrell in Farrell ed p.68

[8] Hogan, The four glorious years p.56

[9] Aindrias O Cathasaigh, ‘Getting with the programme. Labour, the Dáil and the Democratic Programme of 1919’ Red Banner March 2009. p.1. This is the most thorough examination of the drafting of the document.

[10]    Seán O’Faolain, Vive Moi! An autobiography (London, 1965) pp.145-6

[11]  Laffan, Resurrection of Ireland p.214

[12] Irish Times 31 January 1944; interview with Cathal O’Shannon featured in ‘The First Dáil’, first broadcast by Raidió Éireann 19 January 1969

[13] The text of Johnson’s original document was first published on 1 February 1944 in the Irish Times

[14] Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Get with the programme’ p.3

[15] P.S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the union (London, 1952) p.727 quoted in Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Get with the programme’ p.3

[16] ‘The drafting of the programme’ Irish Press 27 July 1961 quoted in Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Get with the programme’ p.3

[17] Ibid. It is worth bearing in mind, that O’Shannon had himself been a member of the IRB. See also Arthur Mitchell, Revolutionary Government in Ireland (Dublin, 1995) p.15

[18] Irish Times 1 February 1944

[19] Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Get with the programme’ p.4

[20] ibid

[21] Irish Times 2 Febraury 1944; J.A. Gaughan, Thomas Johnson p.157

[22] ‘An Chéad Dáil 1919,’ first broadcast on Teilifís Éireann 20 January 1969

[23] Beaslaí, Michael Collins and the making of a new Ireland Volume 1 (Dublin, 1926) p.259 quoted in O Cathasaigh ‘Getting with the programme’ p.4

[24] DEC 4 April 1919

[25] DED 11 April 1919

[26] Irish Times 21 January 1969

Marie Kando and the Shoe Boxes of Doom


Probably like a lot of people, around new year, I am in the habit of doing a tidy. Ideally, I do it before 1 January, but sometimes it takes longer, and a lot of that is because of reading. A certain amount of the annual tidy involves filing or shredding bills, receipts, prescriptions and the usual detritus of daily life that never quite gets put away, but much of it is the things that I meant to read but never got around to, the paper equivalent of ten thousand tabs open on a browser. The annual purge always makes me feel better – lighter and less encumbered – and if I don’t manage to do it, I carry everything over for another year and I feel inadequate, or in more dramatic moments, wholly useless. There were several years where my kitchen table, which was always a key part of this process, remained unexcavated, every inch of which was piled high in papers and books for a book I was writing. Thinking back, the only reason the table was ever cleared in the end was that my landlord was selling up and I had to move house, and eviction proved successful where all other inducements had not.

This year, Marie Kondo is helping to spur my efforts. I know people who have found her books very useful, but I haven’t read her, and rely on a vague idea of her method and her new show on Netflix. I have filled a few bags for the bin and the charity shop with my rather half-assed use of the method. My clothes are neatly folded and filed in drawers. I’ll be honest, few items spark joy, but I can hold a pair of decent 60 denier opaque tights and be grateful that they have toes and no ladders enough to be able to wear them out of the house. Perhaps the joyless nature of hosiery is factored into in the books but there’s always the William Morris advice about keeping things that are useful, so all goes well, except for one thing.

It’s the books. Or rather, it’s the books and the paper. So much fucking paper. It’s overwhelming and I feel my chest tighten thinking of it. I started my doctoral studies over 20 years ago. Few people were using laptops and there was a lecturer in my department who recommended what he called the shoe-box method, where the researcher would take notes on index cards and keep them in a shoe box so that they could be filed according to topic. It was terrible advice but I did this and I still have the cards. I completed the PhD, I wrote a book which was partly based on the research but I can’t get rid of the index cards, or, indeed, the other notes. The same applies to everything I’ve done since. Every article, chapter, book, you name it, that I have written, I still have the notes. Mostly they’re in folders, some scrawled notes in pencil from various archives and research libraries and then, as time went on, printed up pages of notes that I typed up on laptops. There are also photocopies, print outs of photographs I took in archives, and various other odds and sods. There are scores of reams of notes for everything I ever wrote and I can’t move for them. There are also scores of reams of notes for everything I never wrote. All the articles I planned to write but I never found the time; the books that almost were (but thankfully were not), and the other books that have not yet been. There is just so much stuff. I can’t throw it out, although I desperately want to. It doesn’t spark joy, it makes me anxious and angst-ridden but it is the result of countless hours spent over years of sitting in various libraries and archives, including one archive which had an atmospheric thermometer permanently at “danger of hypothermia”. I can’t get rid of the material I’ve used but neither can I dispose of the work I have neglected to write, my books of omission.

It’s a problem. It’s a problem lots of people have. Of course, some people are better organised, and others are better able to knock out stuff and move on to the next thing. There are also people who find that after years of collecting material on a subject, that they can decide that they’ll never get around to it and put crates of papers in the green bin, but I think that must happen once in a blue moon. I’m sure it’s hugely cathartic but I couldn’t, or at least, I can’t right now, but I am reluctant to be fatalistic. As the man said, what is to be done?   It occurred to me that there could be a support group for the similarly afflicted. It might work like a study group but really be more like a group therapy session where each week, scholars would bring their research notes for a long shelved project and discuss them, and at the end, they would have to commit to writing something – even only a thousand words – or shred them in a ceremony in front of their peers. There’s also the more generous approach of giving the research to someone else who might use them. Keeping material in circulation is admirable but not everyone is capable of committing to intellectual surrogacy. But if you sit on something long enough it doesn’t matter because someone else will find it themselves anyway, and your generosity will serves no purpose other than to your self-satisfaction.

Today is the feast of the epiphany and I suppose I wondered if I put some of this in writing would I reach my own. I haven’t, of course, but if the files and boxes are still where they were this morning, they are at least stacked a little straighter.



On Tuesday 4 December, I’ll be taking part in the History Ireland Hedge School, From Ballots to Bullets at the NLI National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar with Brian Hanley and Liz Gillis.

You can book your free ticket here.  DtFrSYVWkAEC4M9.jpg-large

“We wouldn’t have a health or education system to begin with…”

Some hastily written thoughts on education from 2017… 

Last year a a newspaper published a column in favour of continued state support for church-run institutions, by a lecturer in religion in a teacher training college. The column was headline ‘Church and  casually asserts that ‘as for the contention that there should be no religious involvement in the operations of State services, we wouldn’t have a health service or an education system to begin with if this contention was State policy.’

This idea is rolled out with some regularity, often in debates in public houses, but is it true?

In terms of education the answer is mostly no, at least for the last two-hundred years. Looking back to the nineteenth century and later into the twentieth century, there were notable efforts to improve education provision in Ireland which, more often than not, were fought by the Catholic Church.

While teaching orders such as the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Charity did indeed run schools, most Irish people were educated by lay teachers. The primary education system today is based on the one set up under British rule in 1831. Established with the intention that schools be non-denominational and were prohibited from teaching religion, the various churches in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, worked to make sure that this system was inoperable. By the turn of the century almost all primary schools were run under the management of the local parish priest or rector, although staffed by lay teachers who were paid using state funds.

It should be borne in mind that the vast majority of teachers in Catholic schools during the 1800s were untrained and by 1900 barely 50 per cent of national teachers were trained. This was because there was a prohibition on employing teachers who had attended the non-denominational training college in Marlborough Street. In the eyes of the Catholic church, it was preferable to have untrained teachers rather than ones who had been trained in a secular environment. It was only when Catholic run teacher training colleges were established during the 1870s that children attending Catholic schools had the benefit of qualified teachers.

Similarly, the Catholic Church opposed the setting up of University Colleges Cork and Galway (now NUI Galway and University College Cork) along with Queens University Belfast because they were non-denominational. The Catholic Church wanted a Catholic university and Catholics were instructed not to attend these ‘Godless colleges’, lest they pick up any secularism there. Of course, more recently, the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid instructed Catholics in his diocese of the necessity for Catholics to be given a ‘fully Catholic education’ and forbade them from attending Trinity College Dublin, under pain of mortal sin.

Every bit of control which the Catholic Church secured over education was jealously guarded. For decades, the parish priests who managed schools could fire teachers with immediate effect for no reason. Efforts by the Irish National Teachers Organisation to get security of tenure for its members were highly controversial and resulted in the INTO being banned in half the Catholic schools in Ireland at the turn of the 1900s. Again and again, the teachers were accused of trying to push the Church out of education. Notably, all the Church provided here was control – the labour came from the lay teachers the money which paid their wages from the state.

This all pre-dated the creation of the Free State in 1922 and continued thereafter. Contrary to popular liberal opinion, a Catholic curtain did not descend on the south after partition, the existing situation merely ossified. The largely Catholic and very conservative Cumann na nGaedheal government had no interest in interfering with the role played by the Church in running schools and when it came to office, the Fianna Fáil government did likewise.

The state did have a problem, however. It was supposed to pay three-quarters of the costs of running the schools while local contributions would cover the rest. This was often short in economically deprived areas, which meant that in many working class areas of Dublin especially, the schools were cold and squalid. Health officers reported that the insanitary conditions broke health regulations and were likely to cause serious harm to children’s health, but asked again and again by successive governments to pay the money needed for the upkeep of schools, the Catholic church refused. When the INTO suggested that the solution would be for the government to pay the full amount, it was accused of trying to push the Church out of its natural sphere and introduce state socialism. Its attitude towards buildings showed a Church which wanted all of the power without any of the responsibility, and displayed a callous disregard for the welfare of the children and the people who taught them. The issue remained a problem well into the 1950s. The Church protected its role more zealously, in the context of the cold war but also watching the growth of the welfare state in the UK. After it had managed to dispense with the Mother and Child scheme, it continued to fight against full state funding of schools. As Cardinal D’Alton observed it ‘it has long been the considered view of the Bishops that if the building, maintenance, heating and cleaning of the schools were taken out of the hands of the managers, the ownership of the schools by the Church and the right of the managers to appoint and dismiss teachers would also soon be lost.’

For the last two-hundred years, in primary education especially, the state has provided the vast majority of funds and personnel for education. To suggest that we would not have an education system without the work of the Catholic Church is false. Rather, what the Church has tended to do was to demand control of a system but using state funds to run it, wielding power but without living up to its responsibilities.

The British Labour movement and the 1913 lockout.

Text of a talk at an event organised by Unite the Union in 2013.  

At noon on Monday, 1 September 1913, the 46th annual Trades Union Congress opened at the Milton Hall in Manchester. The first session began with messages of regret, as was customary but before the president could proceed further AE Chandler from the Railway Clerks demanded to know what Congress planned to do in connection with events in Dublin over the previous two days where, reports had it, four hundred people had been injured at the hands of the police and one man killed. It was, in the words of the Miners’ Robert Smillie, a massacre.

The trouble had begun in Dublin a couple of weeks earlier when on 15 August, William Martin Murphy issued an ultimatum to Irish Independent dispatch staff to leave the ITGWU or be sacked. Forty were let go and two days later, 200 tramwaymen were added to their number. The dispute escalated when the Dublin tramwaymen from the ITGWU left their trams on the morning of the Horse Show on 26 August and in the days that followed, officials of the Dublin Trades Council were arrested and there were violent scenes in the city. These reached their height with the infamous police baton charge on Sackville Street on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’

Certainly, the delegates at the TUC in Manchester were appalled by events across the water. Many of them had strong connections with Ireland but they were keen that their disgust at events was not viewed as a nationalist reaction: such violence by police during strikes was far too familiar. Almost exactly two years earlier in Liverpool, 350 people were hospitalized after an attack on a mass strike meeting by the police and troops, an attack referred to as Bloody Sunday, and two days later, troops shot and killed two workers in another incident. Events in Dublin had nothing to do with nationalism, they was an act of class war.

But if delegates were united in their condemnation of the police and the authorities, they differed among themselves in their attitude towards the dispute. The British movement was divided between cautious officials who instinctively supported the workers while opposing Larkin’s militancy and those who took a more syndicalist view similar to Larkin. The division was deep but unequal with caution predominating at the highest levels of the trade union leadership.

The less-than wholehearted support for the strike, or more accurately, the strike leaders was clear as James Sexton moved the original motion which condemned the banning of the meeting on Sunday and the ‘brutal manner in which the citizens of [Dublin] were treated.’ As Sexton acknowledged

It is well known, I think, to this congress, or to a good many members of the congress, that I have no reason to love some of the men who are imprisoned in connection with this question but this is a matter which rises above petty personalities altogether. It may be said that two blacks do not make one white; but the blackness of James Connolly, black as it may be – – I do not want to say a word against anyone of them, but I say that the blackness of JC and Larkin – if it be black – is white compared with the hellish blackness of men like Sir Edward Carson and some of his followers.

As Larkin’s old boss in the NUDL there was no love lost between the two but their clash was not merely personal. Sexton was inclined to be cautious as a trade union leader, Larkin less so. Ben Tillett of the London Dockers remarked that Sexton had been mild – he called for Larkin’s release from prison to be included in the motion too – while CB Stanton of the Miners’ Federation criticized the movement for becoming too cautious. ‘We have grown too smug, too respectable. There are too many of our people in the House of Commons, and too many JPs in our midst. There are too many afraid to dare and do.’

Congress voted to send a delegation to Dublin to inquire into events and their party of six men arrived in Dublin on Wednesday but their time in the city was not fruitful. In fact, quite the opposite. Relations were cool to begin with and downright frosty by the end. First of all, the Englishmen refused to address a public meeting when they arrived (in contrast with Keir Hardie who had come earlier). Then, as far as the Dublin men were concerned, a meeting with the Under-Secretary in Dublin Castle seemed to have left them with ‘a bad opinion’ of the Dublin leaders who came to the conclusion that their British brothers had set themselves up as arbitrators rather than supporters; at least one warned that they were trying to end the dispute behind Larkin’s back.

There was one very positive gesture, however, was the TUC’s pledge of £5,000 support for the strikers. At the suggestion of Bill O’Brien, this was given in kind since the sight of food ships docking on the Dublin quays would serve well as a symbol of resistance.

The problem was Larkin and the others did not want charity, they wanted solidarity. Larkin wanted a sympathetic strike and the British labour leaders had no intention of letting him have one; neither were they supportive of blacking goods to Ireland. Larkin, who had been arrested on Bloody Sunday, was released from Mountjoy on 12 September and immediately set off for England. He was there to raise money and support but while his ability to draw a crowd was clear, his lack of diplomacy was as bad as ever. He told a meeting at Manchester that the British trade union movement was ‘absolutely rotten’ and their leaders ‘damnable hypocrites,’ damning them collectively and then by name. Famously, he told them ‘I care for no man or men. I have got a divine mission, I believe, to make men and women discontented.’ If by some chance there was any doubt about where his sympathies lay in the British trade union movement, they were set straight when Larkin spoke at a series of rallies organized by the Daily Herald, the paper of the trade union rebels. Connolly for his part, called them ‘old fossils… willing to sell the pass at any time.’

Publicly, the British labour leaders held their tongues, but openly accused the Dublin unions as being ‘undisciplined and dangerous’ and that Larkin’s syndicalism was ‘poor fighting’ and ’15 years out of date.’

There was clearly support for Larkin and his tactics among the rank and file. Some 13,000 railwaymen in Liverpool, Birmingham, Crewe, Derby and Sheffield refused to carry goods destined for Dublin.[5] The Daily Herald reported that ‘the rank and file …say fight.’ NUR leader Jimmy Thomas was quick to put a stop to this. When, at the end of October, Larkin was found guilty of sedition in a case relating to events months before the Lockout, there was a swell of indignation and a protest rally at the Albert Hall, addressed by George Bernard Shaw and Sylvia Pankhurst, among others easily sold out. Ultimately pressure on the government to ensure Larkin’s release saw him let out of prison on 13 November. Soon after, he returned to England and began the campaign he dubbed ‘The Fiery Cross’ a series of huge meetings which began in Manchester where he spoke to a full house of 4,000 with five times that many outside. Workers flocked to hear him wherever he went: Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Preston, Stockport, Swansea. His appearance at the Albert Hall was a hot ticket among workers and aristocrats alike. The campaign and the importation of scabs saw another round of sympathetic strikes in Liverpool and Wales, this time involving some 30,000 workers.

Emmet O’Connor quotes a London official reporting

In all my experience I have never known a time when there has been manifested a desire to help any union in dispute as there is among dockers both in London and the provincial ports towards Dublin… We have had to rearrange the whole of our paid officials in London, placing them in certain centres with the express purpose of preventing any disorganized move.

Larkin’s continued appeals to the rank and file prompted the union leadership to take a stronger line against Larkin and by the time the TUC held a special congress to decide its tactics on the Lockout, it was clear that support among the leadership for sympathetic action was not there. Even those closest to Larkin like Ben Tillett were steadfast against the action. Congress voted to continue its financial support and lend its assistance in leading a settlement but clearly support had begun to ebb away. Strikers began to trickle back to work during December and by 18 January it was officially brought to an end.

Ultimately, the Lockout was disastrous for relations between the British and Irish labour movements but if the British labour movement was not prepared to endorse sympathetic action their support was worth a damn sight more than anything which came from Irish politicians who were either silent on the Lockout or vocally opposed to the strikers. If the Irish leaders saw he British union leadership as too cautious, this shouldn’t overshadow the class solidarity which was so clearly evident during the Lockout, especially by the rank and file. Between September 1913 and February 1914, a total of £150,000 was donated to the Lockout fund, of this two thirds came from British workers. At a time when Dublin trade unionists were callously abandoned by their fellow Irishmen and women, the support of British workers illustrated more than anything, who Irish labour’s friends were, and perhaps as importantly, precisely who they were not.